When I was a boy, the weeks before Christmas were filled with giddy anticipation centered on the decorated tree, stockings hung by the fireplace, and carols sung around the piano with mom, dad and my sisters. Somewhere in my teens Christmas eve at church became the principal focal point, and with it an expectation of a greater time of peace and goodwill on earth, although it seemed to me we already had good portion of it. It didn’t occur to me until years later that mom and dad had lived through the depression in rural dust bowl Kansas, and WWII when all the world was aflame. Just when it seemed that peace and goodwill might have finally arrived, Korea broke out and threats of nuclear annihilation were real. Amidst it all, they led us in carols, worship, and thanksgiving for the peace and goodwill that surrounded our home life.
To me, America was an island of peace and goodwill in a world that was otherwise neither peaceful nor of goodwill. Not true of course, unless you were among the fortunate and privileged, I being one of them. For many Americans, television kept up the illusion through decades of entertainment featuring the good life, good times, good friends, and happy days. Even the Great Recession couldn’t rattle the cage, but it’s rattled now. The world hasn’t changed, and maybe America hasn’t either, but whatever patina of peace and goodwill it had has worn thin. What happened?
We’ve become aware and weary that our engagement in decades of military hostilities offers no victory, no end, and increasingly no purpose. We can’t avoid knowing about the unspeakable barbarity it has brought upon millions of others. The nation’s government lurches from one continuing resolution to another like a broken down old truck. The presidency is held by the corrupt head of a corrupt family organization. He knows little about and cares less for anything that isn’t about him. In the harsh light cast about him, the systemic injustices that have haunted us for centuries are now more fully and painfully revealed. Our reputation for world leadership lies in ridiculed tatters. A significant portion of the population we had hidden away feels liberated to engage in racial and ethnic discrimination without fear of consequences. A slide toward fascism seems possible, even probable.
Where is Christmas in all of this? Certainly not in Hallmark movies.
If we strip away the sentimentality of Christmas, it’s right where it should be. It came in just such a time as this. It came when things looked as if they couldn’t get any darker. It came in the least expected way: gritty, humble, vulnerable, weak, powerless, a baby lying in a borrowed pile of hay. The Word of God made flesh was made known to only a few shepherds, yet it was a light that the darkness could not extinguish. Amidst the pomp of Rome’s greatest days, in a land under the thumb of Roman occupation, with a cruel puppet king, Jesus, prince of peace, entered unobserved and unwelcome. The source of all life came to give us new life in a dangerously improbable way.
It took many years for me to realize that mom and dad had known it all along. We could gather around the piano singing songs of peace and goodwill because they had been to the manger in the darkest of times, and knew that lying there was the source of redemption from darkness. Their’s wasn’t a complicated faith. I’ve often called it mid American generic Christianity. But they had experienced the darkness. With the shepherds, they had seen the stable light burning, had heard the angels sing, and let it guide their way into the future.
We, no less than they, can do the same. We live in neither the best of all possible worlds, nor the worst, but it is a world desperate for redemption, and we know that its redeemer lives, not as a mythical far away god, nor gallant knight of yore, but as Jesus Christ, whom in human language we say is God’s only and eternal son. He was born to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, reconciling us to God. In dark and dangerous times we need someone to shine the light and lead the way. Jesus is the way, the light, and the source of life. Finding our way to the manger is a good place to start. No Hallmark movie sappiness here, it’s the real thing, and we need it.